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Emotionally Surviving the Violence of Homelessness

Updated on May 24, 2016
Kylyssa profile image

Kylyssa Shay was homeless for over a year in her youth; it lead her to become a homelessness activist. She thinks, feels, and has opinions.

The aftereffects of violence experienced during homelessness can remain for a lifetime after finding a home.
The aftereffects of violence experienced during homelessness can remain for a lifetime after finding a home. | Source

Getting a home doesn't fix all the damages of homelessness, the struggle to survive homelessness continues

The majority of people who experience homelessness in America have already experienced violence or will experience violence in the future. I'm not going to give advice here on how to physically survive the violence as it occurs. There are just too many varieties of violence and violent situations and when someone needs that exact advice most, he or she will not have the leisure of looking up advice on the Internet. But the struggle to emotionally survive the violence associated with homelessness in America can last a lifetime so there's time, all too much time, for people to find advice that can help.

How do I know how to emotionally survive the violence most homeless Americans are subject to? I have survived it. I have not survived violence emotionally intact nor am I free of the emotional or physical scars even decades later. I made a lot of mistakes and I am alive and not as tortured as I once was. If I can save anyone from the same mistakes I made or ease anyone's pain at all the pain of giving birth to this page is well worthwhile.

Disclaimer: Please Read First

I am not a medical professional and the advice found on this page does not replace the advice of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, or therapists of any kind. I’m simply someone who has been through violence while homeless and survived it emotionally as best I could.

Person sitting, staring out at the ocean
Person sitting, staring out at the ocean | Source

Why I Think the Emotional Impact of Violence Suffered by Homeless People is Sometimes Different

I’m sure there’s a lot of advice out there for victims of violence. But I think that there’s a twist that makes violence suffered by homeless people a bit more complicated a lot of the time.

Nobody cares. Or at least almost no one cares.

If a homed person is beaten or stabbed or shot there are people who care and few who will blame that person and those few tend to be rabid bigots of some kind. If a homeless person is beaten, stabbed, shot, or harmed in some other way, very few care at all and most people, even family members, will blame the victim. So I think this all makes violence suffered by homeless people a bit more like rape, even when sexual assault is not involved.

Relatives don’t care, police don’t care, and the community in general certainly doesn’t care. Some people will even see the perpetrator of violence against a homeless person as some kind of hero.

The assumption is also made that homeless people are the major predators of homeless people and that all homeless people are criminals so all homeless people get what they deserve when they are harmed.

I think this all adds more layers and series of complications to the emotional harm caused by violence suffered by homeless people.

Keep this in mind, it is the society that does not care which is in error, not you. You are a human being and deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as any other human being. Violence is something no one deserves.

Holding the hands of another to comfort
Holding the hands of another to comfort | Source

Seek Help

If it is at all possible, seek professional help. Seek help from victims' support groups. Seek self-help in books and online. Seek inside yourself for help. You aren't to blame and you deserve to be helped.

I know this bit of advice is really generic but therapy can really help, finding others who accept you and can relate to your experiences can help, and knowledge that helps to put your experiences into perspective can help.

Regarding self-help, some formerly homeless people I've spoken with found it helpful to use self-help resources intended for victims of sexual assault, even if they were not assaulted in that manner, perhaps because homeless victims of assault face similar weird attitudes, misconceptions, and inappropriate blaming by people who don't understand.

Hand holding a knife
Hand holding a knife | Source

Forgive Yourself and Place the Blame Where It Belongs

While most of the world outside blames you for the awful things you have been through while homeless, they are wrong. It's still almost impossible to not internalize that blame on some level. Find that blame inside yourself and put it where it belongs- solely on the criminals who hurt you. You can even put a little of the blame on the society that made you an attractive target to predators by not caring if homeless people get hurt.

Let go of any blame for your injuries that you find directed at yourself. If you can't let go of all of the blame, at least forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for being in a bad situation. Forgive yourself for doing something stupid that put you at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

There isn't an adult alive and conscious who hasn't made some stupid mistakes, who hasn't been careless, or who is immune to falling prey to a clever enough predator. Most of them are lucky and haven't made their stupid mistakes at the wrong place and time near the wrong people. But you weren't lucky and the cards were stacked against you because of your homelessness. Maybe that's why many people say that homeless people are down on their luck.

Our society accepts violence against homeless people so homelessness in America is always the wrong place and time and puts one very frequently too near predators who are well aware of it. The predators are always the ones to blame.

You don't deserve to be hurt.

Three friends huddled together on the sidewalk in the cold
Three friends huddled together on the sidewalk in the cold | Source

Be Careful in Relationships of All Kinds

Because you've experienced violence, perhaps so much violence you've come to see it as a simple fact of life, the standards of behavior you may accept in others may have slipped or may not have been set high enough to begin with. Your desire to be treated as someone, anyone at all, may blind you to people who are users or abusers and may lead you to figure "beggars can't be choosers" when it comes to who you can have as friends or lovers.

Carefully examine how the people you associate with treat you. If they demean you or abuse you, step away. There are good people who will want to be your friends. Give yourself the time to find them.

That is not to say you should avoid people or avoid making friends. I'm just asking that you think about how you are being treated by your friends. Bad relationships can increase the time it takes to heal emotionally by reinforcing self-blame or by causing further harm.

A couple casting long shadows
A couple casting long shadows | Source

Be Especially Cautious about Intimate Relationships

The average homeless woman in America will be raped by her eleventh day on the streets. The average homeless man or teen boy is pretty likely to get raped or sexually abused, too, although few will talk about it. If you have experienced any sexual abuse of any kind or if you were forced to engage in survival sex give yourself plenty of time to recover before getting back on the horse, so to speak. I speak from experience here.

This is one of those big, glaring mistakes I made. In hindsight, it’s obvious but, at the time, I felt like I desperately needed to enjoy my body, maybe just to prove it was possible and to prove it belongs to me and no one else. That has its place and it has been very healing for me since, but don’t start too soon. Stick to your own two hands and your imagination for a while and you won’t regret it.

How long “a while” may be is up to you, of course, but I’d suggest you wait at least until you don’t get surprised by situational flashbacks to your traumatic experiences. I didn’t. It was a very big mistake. I jumped into an abusive relationship that kept the shadows of my past fresh and added shadows of its own that I've had to survive and move past.

Nonjudgmental affection from a pet
Nonjudgmental affection from a pet | Source

Be as Compassionate Towards Yourself as You Would Be to Someone Else

This is the single most important piece of advice anyone ever gave me. Even before I became homeless, I had been so ground away at that I did not rage about things I could not bear to see done to someone else, not even a stranger or a cruel person, if they were done to just me.

I still struggle with this. I still feel less than real. I still think, it’s just me, when something bad happens to me. I hurt and I bleed and I feel pain just like anyone else but part of me still feels like it’s OK for people to hurt me or slight me or say nasty things about me.

It isn’t OK. It isn’t OK for anyone to hurt you. Get angry and feel outraged. Picture the same thing being done to someone you care about or someone obviously innocent such as a child and let yourself feel for yourself what you would feel for that person. I may have to work on that for the rest of my days but it has helped so much I can’t even express it.

Be gentle with yourself.

You are worthy.

A hand with a pencil about to write on a blank page
A hand with a pencil about to write on a blank page | Source

Write About It

Writing as therapy isn't something that works for everyone but give it a try some time. It might surprise you to find how freeing it can be to pour out the pain inside you, if only onto paper or onto a computer screen. It has been incredibly helpful for me. It really helps me with that thing I mentioned earlier, the bit about seeing the bad things that happened to me as if they happened to someone else I can feel sympathy for. When I write about my traumatic experiences, I can go back and read them later and I can cry for that girl and rage for her and grieve for her in ways I'd never been able to before.

While writing about your homeless traumas can be very healing, keep in mind it can be very, very painful, too. For me, I write about an old trauma and it makes me weep as I do it and I feel shaky and sick for a day or so at least but then I feel better. When I go back and read it, I will often at least tear up. But it gets easier and easier and I eventually come to accept and feel a bit proud of surviving those things I write about.

However, I do not recommend publishing those experiences until you are feeling much stronger and have worked your way toward accepting yourself and your memories. People on the Internet can be heartless and lash out with their own pain. When you experience such nastiness too soon, it is really too painful. I still do not publish many of the traumatic experiences I've had because they are still too raw and the pain involved with thinking about them hasn't really gotten much less. One poke at those experiences and I'd be bleeding all over and retreating into myself again.

Time does heal over all wounds that don't kill you but that's not to say you won't be a mass of scar tissue and missing a few parts when you've healed.

Silhouettes of two friends talking, one standing stiff and the other relaxed and open-looking
Silhouettes of two friends talking, one standing stiff and the other relaxed and open-looking | Source

Remember That Most People Do Not Understand

Even the kindest, sweetest people you know probably do not understand what you’ve been through. That doesn’t mean their empathy is not meaningful or that they can’t help you through rough times but it is something you should keep in mind. They may say or do things that, if they understood, would horrify them.

Not too long ago, I thanked my partner for a very nice, friendly kiss. He replied with something like, aren’t all kisses friendly? You and I both know that there are kisses that are the exact opposite of friendly but gentle people who have not themselves experienced such things, well, it would never occur to them.

My advice is to just let it go, no matter how it hurts at the time as long as it doesn’t happen very often. If you explain it to them, you may just be needlessly hurting them and their upset may push them away from you due to the fear they’ll say something unintentionally awful again. If the person in question seems to put his or her foot in his or her mouth in hurtful ways a lot, then it would probably be a good idea to very gently address the situation. You could even link to this page. I’d suggest you wait a few hours or days before bringing it up because you’ll both be less emotional about it.

The thing to remember is that while most of the people who care about you don't really understand, they still care about you.

Two friends comfortably talking with each other while watching a sunset
Two friends comfortably talking with each other while watching a sunset | Source

Having Someone to Empathize or Even to Sympathize or Feel Outraged on Your Behalf Can Be Healing

Here’s where sharing your experiences can be helpful. When you’ve reached the point where you need people to acknowledge what was done to you, find a way to do so. This accomplishes at least two things. People will try to comfort you and you’ll be able to see that, while there are heartless people who care nothing about you there are also beautiful people who feel for you and care about what happened. It will also relieve you at least somewhat of that feeling that you are hiding some dark secret that has shaped your personality and help you to let go of any shame you may feel about having been the victim of violence associated with homelessness.

© 2013 Kylyssa Shay


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